The Nationals’ talented but underachieving roster reached a crossroads this winter, with a slew of critical players heading into their walk years in 2015. The choices were clear: Keep the band together for one more run at a title, even if it meant losing some key pieces at season’s end, or trade a major piece or two for a chance at perpetuating this run of success. The third choice — pony up and re-sign everyone — never appeared to be a viable option. In the end, the Nationals more or less stood pat other than adding another weapon to an already loaded rotation, giving this core one last chance for glory. A quick look at this roster, which changed little from the one that won 96 games in 2014, tells you it should be a World Series contender, but folks have been saying that for a few years now, and the Nationals still haven’t gotten past the Division Series.
Even before signing Max Scherzer to a seven-year, $210 million contract, this rotation was in fine shape. Jordan Zimmermann is perhaps the most important name on that list of Nationals who will be heading into their final season before free agency in 2015. Though he was the subject of many trade rumors, the team ultimately kept the understated righthander who has been the most consistent member of this high-powered rotation for several years now. With Zimmermann returning, this rotation — also featuring Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez and Doug Fister — will rank as the best in the game. Fister, in particular, was a revelation in 2014, his first season in the NL following the trade that brought him to D.C. from Detroit. In most other rotations, he would be a solid No. 1 starter. Here, he either will be the No. 4 or 5 guy option. All told, Nationals starters went 70–49 with a 3.04 ERA in 2014, including Tanner Roark, who has been squeezed out because of the quality arms ahead of him. And now this group adds Scherzer (18-5, 3.15 ERA with the Tigers) to the mix. There’s every reason to believe this quintet can match, if not exceed, those numbers in 2015, as long as everyone stays healthy.
Two winters ago, the Nationals made the surprising move to sign free-agent closer Rafael Soriano, widely interpreted as a sign the team didn’t trust holdover Drew Storen with the ninth inning. Soriano did a decent enough job in 2014, converting 32 of 39 save opportunities. But the Nationals made no effort to keep him, preferring to turn the ninth back over to Storen, who saved 43 games in 2011 and last year was one of the most unhittable relievers in the game. Tyler Clippard, who had handled eighth-inning duties the past few seasons, was traded to Oakland for Yunel Escobar. Casey Janssen, who saved 87 games for Toronto over the past three seasons, signed in early February and will likely take over Clippard’s role. The rest of this highly functional bullpen appears mostly set, with righthanders Craig Stammen and Aaron Barrett and lefties Jerry Blevins and Matt Thornton holding down spots. The seventh spot is up for grabs from among a group that includes righty Blake Treinen, lefties Matt Grace and Xavier Cedeno, as well as veteran Heath Bell, a December minor league free agent signee.
Second base has been the Nationals’ most volatile position the last couple of years, going from Danny Espinosa to Anthony Rendon, then back to Espinosa and — following a trade deadline move last July — to veteran Asdrubal Cabrera. The Nationals acquired Escobar from the A’s in January if anything to give Espinosa competition. Escobar is a career .276 hitter who provides excellent defense when his head is in the right place. However, don’t rule out veteran Dan Uggla, signed to a minor league deal in December. Shortstop is an interesting position for the Nationals, if only because veteran Ian Desmond, a three-time Silver Slugger winner and cornerstone of the clubhouse, is in his final season before free agency. The Nationals can take comfort in penciling him in for 20 homers and 90 RBIs in 2015, but it will be unsettling to not have him signed beyond that.
The long-speculated move of erstwhile third baseman Ryan Zimmerman across the diamond to first base — forced by his shoulder injuries and a decline in his ability to throw — became official when the Nationals declined their 2015 option on Adam LaRoche. The estimable “Face of the Franchise” is still an elite glove man (though he will have a tough act to follow in LaRoche), and the Nationals hope some closure to the inevitable position-switch, which found him mostly in left field in 2014, will help his bat. Third base thus is bequeathed — for good this time — to Rendon, whose first full big-league season produced a dazzling .287/.351/.473 line, a league- leading 111 runs scored and a fifth-place finish in MVP balloting.
Picking up Denard Span’s $9 million club option for 2015 was a no-brainer after a resurgent 2014 in which he set career highs in hits, extra-base hits and stolen bases. As a result, the Nationals return their entire 2014 outfield intact, with Bryce Harper and Jayson Werth at the corners — with their positions expected to be flip-flopped (Harper shifting to right and Werth to left). Though Harper will play the entire year at age 22, this is his fourth big-league season, and the way he closed out 2014, with 10 homers in his final 46 games, portends what could be a monster 2015. That, however, assumes Harper can stay healthy, which has proven to be a problem since he burst on the scene. Werth, meantime, will turn 36 in May — as he enters the fifth year of his seven-year deal with the Nationals — but shows few signs of slowing down, with 2014 numbers more or less in line with his career norms.
Injuries continue to confound Wilson Ramos, who has played more than 90 games in a season only once in a four-plus-year career. But when he is healthy, he is one of the best catchers in the game. His litany of maladies grew in 2014 to include a broken hamate bone suffered on Opening Day and a hamstring strain that nagged him much of the year. In an ideal world, Ramos replicates his breakout 2011 season — 113 games and a .267/.334/.445 line. But that may be more than the Nationals can expect.
The Nationals’ bench situation was clarified by the December trade that sent outfield prospect Steven Souza to the Rays, a move that elevates fellow prospect Michael Taylor into the discussion for a big-league bench job in 2015. Veteran Nate McLouth returns to the primary fourth outfield role, but the Nationals may keep Taylor as well for his combination of speed and power. Otherwise, he would go to Class AAA and stay on the ready. Tyler Moore will also be around as a reserve first baseman/corner outfielder, as will the loser of the second base battle between Escobar and Espinosa, barring a trade. Backup catcher Jose Lobaton is a solid enough replacement for those days (or weeks) when Ramos can’t go.
Matt Williams’ rookie season as the Nats’ manager was a rousing success, producing 96 wins and earning him NL Manager of the Year honors. October, however, was a different story, as the Nationals’ surprising exit in the NLDS pivoted on Williams’s decision to remove Zimmermann with 100 pitches, one out from a complete-game shutout. Despite the Nationals’ loaded roster, this wasn’t as easy a managing job as some would argue, as Williams had to navigate numerous crises and work without his ideal everyday lineup for most of the season. In Year 2, he brings his entire coaching staff back, a significant mark of stability. General manager Mike Rizzo has built the Nationals into a perennial contender, but the move that has defined his tenure — the decision to bench Strasburg due to an innings limit late in the 2012 season — continues to resonate all these years later.
Every season is crucial, of course, but 2015 takes on even more significance for the Nationals, with so many important players about to reach free agency and having made the huge commitment to Scherzer. One does wonder whether they will miss LaRoche, a steady influence in the lineup and clubhouse, more than they anticipated. But on most days of the week, the Nationals will run a starting pitcher to the mound who is significantly better than the guy on the other team. With a roster this loaded, anything short of a trip to the World Series will be considered a disappointment.
2015 Prediction: 1st in NL East
CF Denard Span (L) Led the National League in hits with 184 and hit a sizzling .346/.403/.459 in second half.
3B Anthony Rendon (R) The Nats’ best position player in 2014, with 6.5 WAR and league-leading 111 runs scored.
1B Ryan Zimmerman (R) Injured shoulder has also hurt his power at plate; 42.8 AB/HR was worst ratio of his career.
RF Bryce Harper (L) Nationals believe Harper is due for a 40-homer breakout season if he stays healthy.
LF Jayson Werth (R) At age 35, Werth ranked third in the National League in OBP, eighth in OPS and fifth in walks.
SS Ian Desmond (R) Effort to hit deeper in counts led to career highs in walk rate (7.1%) and K rate (28.2%).
C Wilson Ramos (R) Has played only 191 games last three seasons — 88 in 2014 — due to series of injuries.
2B Yunel Escobar (R) After entering 2014 at plus-46 for his career, cost the Rays 24 runs on defense (Baseball Info Solutions).
C Jose Lobaton (S) Capable backup, but total non-factor (.234/.287/.304) at the plate in 2014.
2B Danny Espinosa (S) Acute strikeout problem (554 in 1,761 career ABs) could be lessened by abandoning switch-hitting.
1B/OF Tyler Moore (R) The Nats’ top bat off the bench back in 2012, Moore had only one pinch-hit (in 14 ABs) in 2014.
OF Nate McLouth (L) Shoulder surgery ended season in August, but expected to be fully healthy for spring training.
OF Michael Taylor (R) Spent most of the 2014 season in Double-A, where he hit .313 and stole 34 bases.
INF Kevin Frandsen (R) Saw time at four different positions in 2014 and had some big hits for Nationals off bench.
RH Stephen Strasburg Once babied, former No. 1 overall pick now horse of the Nationals’ rotation (34 starts, 215 IP in 2014).
RH Max Scherzer The 2013 AL Cy Young winner followed up with another top-five showing (18-5, 3.15 ERA).
RH Jordan Zimmermann Reliable veteran coming off best season of career in terms of ERA, ERA+, WHIP and FIP.
LH Gio Gonzalez His 10 wins, 158.2 IP and 162 strikeouts were all his lowest totals since 2009.
RH Doug Fister In first year in NL, this former Detroit Tiger led a star-studded rotation in wins, ERA and ERA+.
RH Drew Storen (Closer) In dominating season, most important number was 10 straight saves during September fill-in.
RH Casey Janssen Potential Tyler Clippard replacement saved 25 games in 30 chances for Toronto last season.
LH Jerry Blevins Splits tell the story of his 2014: .298/.398/.423 vs. righties, .160/.202/.217 vs. lefties.
RH Aaron Barrett Unheralded rookie from Ole Miss became trusted seventh-inning man by midseason.
LH Matt Thornton August waiver claim pitched brilliantly (0 ER, 11.1 IP) down stretch in first NL tour.
RH Craig Stammen Jack-of-all bullpen roles pitched two-plus innings in 17 of his 49 regular-season appearances.
RH Tanner Roark Squeezed out of loaded starting rotation despite going 15–10 with 2.85 ERA last season.
Beyond the Box Score
Spot secured Tanner Roark may have been the best healthy pitcher ever left off a postseason rotation, getting relegated to bullpen duty last October despite winning 15 games and pitching to a 2.85 ERA. Pressed into relief duty in the 17th inning of the pivotal Game 2 against the Giants in the NLDS, he gave up the winning run in the 18th. A year ago, he had to fight to earn a roster spot, but after his stellar 2014, Roark has a rotation job already locked up this spring.
Trouble in paradise? The relationship between the Nationals and star outfielder Bryce Harper took a contentious turn this winter over a contract grievance regarding Harper’s arbitration eligibility. Although the matter was eventually settled before a hearing, Harper skipped the team’s “NatsFest” fan event, for which GM Mike Rizzo criticized him in some pointed remarks. Harper is eligible for free agency in 2019.
Clean bill of health On a positive note, Harper is expected to enter 2015 completely healthy, after battling a knee injury for much of 2013 and a torn thumb ligament that required surgery in 2014. The latter affected him at the plate even after he returned from the disabled list, but as the thumb improved so did Harper’s production. Over his last 31 games, including the postseason, Harper batted .315 with a .967 OPS — which could portend a huge 2015.
Switch to no-switch? Whether or not he winds up starting the season as the everyday second baseman, Danny Espinosa may be preparing to make a significant change at the plate — by batting exclusively right-handed instead of switch-hitting. Espinosa’s career splits (.213/.284/.362 as a left-handed hitter, .271/.343/.460 as a right-handed hitter) would indicate the move is long overdue.
Player named Turner The Nationals appear to have prepared themselves for Ian Desmond’s eventual departure by acquiring a potential replacement in Trea Turner, a top shortstop prospect and the “player to be named later” in a December three-way trade between the Nationals, Padres and Rays. Because Turner was drafted in 2014, he cannot officially be traded until this June, which has spawned an awkward situation in which Turner must play the first few months of the season for a team that has already traded him. Once he joins the Nationals, he will automatically become the top position player prospect in the organization.
2014 Top Draft Pick
Eric Fedde, RHP
For the second straight year, the Nationals used their top pick on a pitcher who needed Tommy John surgery, hoping to find value in a talented but injured arm. Fedde, taken 18th overall out of UNLV, had his surgery shortly after the draft and started a throwing program in December. If he pitches at all in 2015, it will be minimal, with careful monitoring by the team. Without the injury, Fedde likely would have been a top-10 pick, complementing a hard, sinking, low-90s fastball with a tight slider and a developing changeup. The Nationals have a strong track record in rehabbing pitching prospects, and the team still believes Fedde can develop into a No. 2 or No. 3 starter in the big leagues.
Top 10 Prospects
1. Lucas Giolito, RHP (20) Elbow injury dropped him to 16th in 2012 draft, but since surgery he has blossomed into one of best arms in the minors, going 10–2 with a 2.20 ERA at Low-A in 2014.
2. Reynaldo Lopez, RHP (21) Mechanical tweak in 2014 sent him zooming into top echelon of Nats prospects.
3. A.J. Cole, RHP (23) Fourth-round pick in 2010 is on big-league doorstep after going 13–4, 3.16 combined at Class AA/AAA, but Nationals’ loaded rotation has no space for him.
4. Trea Turner, SS (21) The player to be named later in three-way Steve Souza trade, he won’t officially join Nationals organization until June, but his talent already makes him franchise’s top position player prospect.
5. Michael Taylor, OF (24) Former prep shortstop has developed into tools-laden outfielder, with plus power and speed. Appears headed to big leagues to stay in 2015 after impressive 2014 in Class AA/AAA.
6. Erick Fedde, RHP (22) The Nationals took him in first round despite knowing he needed elbow surgery. Could be pitching in minors by midseason.
7. Joe Ross, RHP (21) Brother of Tyson Ross reached Class AA as 21-year-old with Padres in 2014, then dealt to Nationals in Steven Souza deal. Has mid-90s fastball, good slider.
8. Brian Goodwin, OF (24) Saw progress slowed by injuries at Class AAA in 2014, but speed and batting eye make him a possible call-up in 2015.
9. Wilmer Difo, SS/2B (23) Dominican product blossomed at Low-A, hitting .315/.360/.470, staking his claim as Nationals’ future second baseman.
10. Jakson Reetz, C (19) Third-round pick in 2014 has the tools to remain at catcher and the bat to advance quickly through minors.